Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra heads to Europe

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Getting to tour Europe's summer music festivals is like being invited to walk down the red carpet at an awards show.

Not just any orchestra can show up, but if you do receive an invitation, people know you're pretty good. And you can be sure the onlookers appreciate what they're seeing.

"By and large, our concerts are always sold out, and they are a very knowledgeable audience," said James A. Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

The PSO is kicking off its 2013 European Festivals tour Monday, an 11-concert marathon that ends Sept. 15. The musicians will play concerts in major festivals and concert halls in Austria, France, Germany, Romania and Switzerland.

Sightseeing in Europe is not foreign to the PSO. Its most recent tour there was this past fall, with the most recent festivals tour taking place in summer 2011. In the past decade, it has played most of these venues and festivals at least once, and usually more than that. The only venue new to the orchestra is the Sala Palatului in Bucharest, Romania.

The musicians are starting to look like regulars.

"Everybody knows the Pittsburgh Steelers. Over there, everybody knows the Pittsburgh Symphony," said Ed Stephan, principal timpanist.

PG map: PSO 2013 European Festival Tour
(Click image for larger version)

Despite the familiarity, music director Manfred Honeck doesn't plan to get too comfy.

"I don't want to see this as a routine," he said, adding, "It's every time different. Every time."

So the highlights retain their shiny veneer. Those include playing two performances at the 75th anniversary of the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland; performing with percussionist Martin Grubinger, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Yuja Wang; and debuting Mr. Honeck's own arrangement, along with Czech composer Tomas Ille, of a suite from Janacek's opera "Jenufa."

"That will be more or less a world premiere," he said.

The repertoire depends on several factors, including the soloists, the festivals' requests, and Mr. Honeck's preferences. The tour's major works are Ravel's "Bolero," Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 and Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben."

Outside of the performances, the musicians have other projects planned. For example, concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley and associate principal violist Tatjana Mead Chamis will play for patients at St. Anna Children's Hospital in Vienna, as part of the PSO's music and wellness program.

Some things are different this time around. Unlike in 2011, the PSO won't be playing at the BBC Proms in London. The ensemble was invited to play during a contractual day off, and in the midst of sorting that out, the festival invited another ensemble, Mr. Wilkinson said.

And this will be the PSO's last international tour until 2016, when the group will return to Vienna's Musikverein for three performances, he said. "Touring's very expensive, and we've always had a policy that we don't take money out of Pittsburgh."

The PSO relies heavily on corporate sponsorships for its tours. This tour is sponsored by BNY Mellon and the Lanxess Corp., with additional funding from foundations.

Mr. Honeck isn't worried about prospects for returning to the festivals.

"The presenters always want us," he said, adding, "That's for us a very good feeling."


Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1750 and on Twitter @BloomPG.


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